Lance: the witch-hunt finally has its witch

The corrosive obsession with doping is a greater threat to the sporting spectacle than any doped-up sportsman could ever be.

Tim Black

Tim Black
Columnist

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And so, in the aftermath of his Oprah-atic confession, bound to neither sate the critics nor elate the devout, the infernal humiliation of one-time cyclist Lance Armstrong continues.

The kicking and pelting began in earnest in August last year, when the US Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) stripped Armstrong of his seven Tour de France titles following his failure to challenge their numerous doping charges. The USADA then followed that up in October with a voluminous, damning report, complete with gruesome testimonies from Armstrong’s one-time confidantes and teammates. By this point, even the International Cycling Union (UCI), which had long sided with Armstrong, had given up the defence to join in the lynching. ‘Lance Armstrong has no place in cycling’, exclaimed UCI president Pat McQuaid. ‘Lance Armstrong deserves to be forgotten in cycling.’

As sporting officialdom condemned, large swathes of the media spat. Gossipy stories of Armstrong’s bullying, his lying, his alleged sociopathology were published without nuance; op-eds assassinating Armstrong’s character, inflating his wrongs to Biblical proportions, were rushed off without perspective. On a man once lionised by millions, whose fame had for years been wrapped yellow around the wrists of those who admired him, open season had been declared. All the hunt lacked was a sighting of the quarry himself. And then this week, that finally happened – in the interview with Oprah Winfrey. Caught and unavoidably contrite, Armstrong acted out the role of the doping sportsman. Yes, he was saying, I am everything that the Dopefinder Generals say I am: I am that witch.

For those who had long asserted Armstrong’s guilt, who had dreamed of his descent from valorised to vilified, the events of the past few months have been long coming. And now they have arrived, this has been their moment, their release, their vindication. And no one perhaps felt this more than David Walsh, a journalist for The Sunday Times. From his 1999 ‘Flawed Fairytale’ newspaper article on Armstrong’s first Tour win to the excoriating 2004 LA Confidential: The Secrets of Lance Armstrong , Walsh had never stopped insisting that Armstrong was indeed a doped-up, megalomaniacal bully intent on fooling the world.

This sense of ‘at last’ certainly pervades Walsh’s new book, the hastily published Seven Deadly Sins: My Pursuit of Lance Armstrong. Of 22 October 2012, the day the UCI joined the USADA in stripping Armstrong of his Tour titles, Walsh even allows himself a little present-tense gloat: ‘This is a momentous day. Armstrong himself will soon change the profile on his Twitter page, removing the five words “seven-time Tour de France winner”. He’s history now, another ageing story of cheating and lying and doping and bullying and sport that wasn’t sport. An icon until the mask was taken away.’ In the days after what was then Armstrong’s professional humiliation, Walsh admits to growing tired of hearing the word ‘vindicated’. But, given the triumphant tone struck by Seven Deadly Sins, ‘vindicated’ is certainly how Walsh appears.

And this is one of the aspects that makes Seven Deadly Sins so interesting. It captures well one of the oddest but most telling elements of the 13-year pursuit of Armstrong: his pursuers knew – they just knew – Armstrong was guilty before they could prove it. His wrongdoing was asserted, his guilt assumed, right from the moment he returned to the Tour in 1999 following his successful cancer treatment, and promptly won it. As Walsh explains, the new, leaner, lighter Armstrong was eight seconds per kilometre faster in the time trial in 1999 than he was in 1993, when he puttered in eighty-first in the field. For Walsh, Armstrong’s comeback performances were just too good to be true; they automatically demanded suspicion.

Admittedly, professional cycling, and the Tour de France in particular, had at that point been recently mired in drug-related scandal. During the 1998 tour, Willy Voet, a masseur for the Festina race team, had been stopped at the Belgian-French border where upon customs officials discovered a cargo load of so-called performance-enhancing drugs. Cycling’s pharmaceutically plumped underbelly had been exposed. As Walsh recalls, ‘six teams withdrew from the race in protest. Cycling’s mass audience was horrified. The 1998 Tour might as well have never got on the road for all it had to do with sport.’

But be that as it may, there is something overdetermined about Walsh’s eagerness to shout ‘j’accuse‘ at Armstrong: his willingness to suspect corruption precedes any evidence of it. There is a revealing moment after Armstrong had won a mountain stage during the 1999 Tour when Walsh’s editor asks him: ‘Do you believe he’s doping?’ Walsh’s responds: ‘Yeah, I do. Of course I can’t prove it.’ The conviction, the belief, that Armstrong is guilty is what’s key here; it is an assumption of guilt in search of the proof. At one point, Walsh invokes the idiom of the hard-boiled private investigator: ‘That gut feeling [that something is amiss with Armstrong] is the only thing left after so much else has been taken. A journalist should always listen to what their gut is saying.’ A journalist should also attempt to listen to what might be the truth, too – not what he wants to be true.

And this raises a problem with the sense of vindication following Armstrong’s fall. That is, just because Armstrong turned out to be doping (as indeed were many of his competitors), does the end justify the means? Is the automated suspicion, the relentless pursuit, the tireless casting of aspersion, justified by the fact that Armstrong did in fact turn out to be using drugs? Or to put it another way, if one woman, having been thrown down the village well, did happen to float, would that justify the original ungrounded accusation that she was a witch? Would the existence of witches justify witch-hunts? That’s the problem with the obsession with drug use in sport: every athlete is assumed to be doping, is assumed to be practising some sort of dark art. Hence they have to constantly prove their innocence (albeit through an invasive testing system rather than a drowning/floating trial). And while the suspicion might be vindicated in some cases, in how many others will achievements be unjustly tainted and even lives ruined?

In fact, this all-pervasive suspicion, indiscriminate as it is, eats away at any enjoyment of the sporting spectacle. ‘The easy choice’, writes Walsh, ‘would be to suspend disbelief and go with the flow. Let this be mere entertainment, not sport. Release sport of all your burdens you place on it just by loving sport and believing sport and wanting to be inspired by sport.’ Which actually sounds like the attitude of a sport lover. But for Walsh, this is at best to be duped, and at worst to be complicit in the suspected corruption. ‘[Disgraced Olympic swimmer] Michelle Smith was [then] the most recent reminder’, he writes of Armstrong’s emergence in the late 1990s, ‘that fairytales in sport can be just fairytales and the legacy of the ’98 Tour was that pro cyclists would now have to prove their innocence’.

It is truly dispiriting logic, one that can only leave sport damaged. It means that no athlete is immune from suspicion, no achievement can be taken for what it is. And what’s worse, the more heroic the achievement, the more it might inspire, the more liable it is to be rendered automatically suspect. If Armstrong is now the most notorious triumph for the doping hunters, then China’s teenage swimmer Ye Shiwen, who won gold at the 2012 Olympics, is its most recent victim. Yet this jaundiced, mean-spirited view of sport seems actually to have been embraced by Walsh. At one point, he approvingly quotes F Scott Fitzgerald: ‘Show me a hero, and I will write you a tragedy.’ One wonders if this is really the best approach to writing about sport, a spectacle to which heroism is intrinsic.

But if it’s not even the whiff of a smoking gun, let alone hard ballistic evidence, that informs this desire to see the pharmaceutical strings, to unmask the clay-footed icon, then what is driving it? The answer seems to lie, strangely enough given the depthless cynicism of the dope-hunters, in the overestimation of sport’s social, political and, yes, moral role. That is, as sport has increasingly moved to the centre of public life over the past couple of decades, as the back pages of newspapers have increasingly appeared at the front, so the expectation has grown that sport serves some higher, moral purpose, that it has something ethical to say to us. The unrealistic, nonsensical demands made of sport have gone hand in hand with increasing cynicism. For instance, the more footballers are expected to be role models, the more people are constantly disappointed by their off-the-field behaviour. And nowhere is this expectation-cynicism dynamic more apparent than in the contemporary obsession with performance-enhancing drugs; the greater the focus, the greater the suspicion.

And this is where Armstrong becomes important. His downfall becomes a means to affirm what is expected of contemporary sport – namely, that it is not just sport anymore, not just glorious spectacle, but rather is some sort of moral instruction, too. Walsh himself virtually admits that he used Armstrong for just such a semi-spiritual purpose: ‘[By 1999] my enthusiasm for professional cycling was at a very low ebb. Lance, Tour champion extraordinaire, came into my journalistic life at precisely the right moment.’ That is, proving Armstrong’s guilt was a cause generated by Walsh’s disillusionment with the perceived amorality of sport. Hence he constantly references a raft of other non-cycling disappointment, from veteran Jamaican sprinter Merlene Ottey’s positive drugs test in 1999 to British Olympian Linford Christie’s test failure in the same year.

In many ways, Armstrong emerges as a classical scapegoat. He is to be burdened with the putative sins (seven deadly ones, according to Walsh) of sport, and expelled; his persecution is simultaneously meant to be cleansing. Of course, Armstrong isn’t the sole source of corruption here. To his Faust, we also have the Mephistopheles of Dr Michele Ferrari, the man responsible for formulating and administering the drugs. Walsh makes him sound like Colonel Kurtz rather than a bio-chemist with an interest in sports science: ‘When we speak about doping and all the shades of morality, hypocrisy, piety and fear surrounding the subject, Ferrari is the riddle at the centre of it. We wonder about Michele Ferrari and men like him, the accommodations they have made. He stands on the far shore of the philosophical argument on doping, gazing across at us, perplexed at our concerns.’

There’s certainly no doubt that in the course of his pursuit of Armstrong, Walsh has found a mission in life. At one point, he is part of a ‘revolutionary movement committed to fighting doping in professional cycling’. At another, he invokes the spirit of the untouchable, incorruptible Eliot Ness, with Armstrong presumably standing in for Al Capone. He’s even Frodo in Lord of the Rings, quoting Sam to himself: ‘There’s some good in the world, Mr Frodo, and it’s worth fighting for.’

Yet can the casting out of Lance the alleged sociopath, burdened as he is with the sins of a culture of doping, cleanse what is seen as the most sullied of sports? It seems unlikely. And why? Because the desire to get ahead using banned substances is not anathema to the spirit of sport – it is inherent to sport’s competitive essence. It’s why athletes train at high altitude, it’s why they seek out the latest dietary supplements, it’s why they employ the most sophisticated of trainers. And it’s the determination to win that marks out the great from the merely good, which separates the supreme competitor from the mere participant.

Indeed, the competitive desire to better oneself is certainly what marked Armstrong out. Walsh knows this better than anyone. When he first met the young Texan in the garden of the Chateau de al Commanderie hotel near Grenoble on 13 July 1993, he was immediately struck by him: ‘He had something inside that made him unlike any other sportsman I had met. Radioactivity.’ Or as Armstrong put it at the time: ‘I’m not any more gifted than anybody else, but it’s just this desire, just this rage.’ It makes you wonder about the anti-doping mission of the likes of Walsh. Are they not trying to purge sport of something that is essential to it? Is cleansing sport of drugs any more achievable than ridding it of competition? Perhaps it’s time to stop persecuting the cheats, and have a proper, sober debate about the rules.

Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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